“Honky Tonk Freeway” on location in Mount Dora, 1981

5: Shiny Things Everywhere

October 17, 2015

This past July, a deal was announced involving several property owners from inside the proposed Innovation District to donate 20 acres to Lake Sumter State College (LSSC) for a new satellite campus. The branch is to provide workforce training programs and general education courses. The deal is contingent upon the college receiving state funding for the campus within the next five years. LSSC currently has satellite campuses in Clermont and Sumterville.

Many local leaders were enthusiastic about the deal when it was signed. “You can’t overstate the importance of the college making a commitment like this to the area,” Robert Chandler, the county’s economic growth director, told the Daily Commercial on July 17. “It legitimatizes that as an area that is going to experience job-generating growth.” (See entire article here)

However, some of the edges have frayed since then. First, there’s the nature of the deal. Donors — landowners casting a long eye on development — made the gift contingent on approval of a broader project that includes enough acreage to build hundreds of apartments. In receiving the land, the college is responsible for writing a letter in favor of changing the growth plans and are required to lobby on behalf of the developers of the proposal.

Most city leaders say that the Innovation District will fall apart if residential development comes first. The city really doesn’t have a say on undeveloped land uses at this point — again, the land is in unincorporated Lake County — but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Development can’t begin until city utilities have been extended, and then the area must be annexed to the city. “No utility agreement, no annexation agreement, no development,” Reggentin has said.

Signing the LSSC extension campus deal in July.

At the time of the signing, Dick Scott, Vice President of Business affairs for LSSC, told the Mount Dora Citizen that although an estimated 4,000–5,000 students would be served at the new East Lake campus, he saw them funneling in from Orlando and the surrounding areas of Lake County. “We aren’t concerned with providing housing near the campus,” he said. “That’s why we want to build near the Wekiva Parkway; that area will be easily accessible for commuting students. It’s very close to Orange County. We believe that entire area will boom.” (“Lake Sumter State College Hopes to Locate New Campus in Mount Dora.“)

Mayor Hoechst now wonders if the deal might have come around a little too quickly. “We have to look at that as a first offer,” she says. “We never asked if that was the best fit for education in the district.

“LSSC is going through a leadership change and they may be assessing whether expansion is the thing they need to be doing next. Valencia is considering a campus extension in Apopka, and that may affect their plans. We have a lot of students attending LSSC, but they also go to the University of Florida or the University of South Florida and North Florida.”

“And it isn’t clear at all that the state is going to come through with the funding within five years, as the agreement states. We fought for funding for Lake Tech — a great place to get vocational skills — but state money never came through for that. So we need to be careful.”

Said First District representative Ryan Donovan, “Everyone wants a piece of Mount Dora these days. We have to be careful that we’re working in the right way with the right people.”

“Higher education is definitely a catalyst,” assistant city manager and planning and zoning manager Mark Reggentin said. “If LSSC can make it happen, that’s great. It’s what is proposed around it that we have problems with.”

I asked Reggentin to compare the Lake Mary commercial development he worked on 25 years ago with the Innovation District — did they have to be wary of Trojan horses back then?

“Not really,” he says. “Once the I-4 corridor opened, the office development was never in question. There was only one parcel to deal with. The philosophy of city council was unwavering. It didn’t take a lot of analytics to convince anyone. They knew that you reap what you sow; if you build it the right way and create good jobs, people will want to live close to those jobs.”

“Here the key word is patience,” Reggentin says. “It’s not going to happen overnight or yesterday. But it will come. Our philosophy is we’re a patient city. We’ve been here 100 years, and we’ll be here 100 more.”

“But we’re definitely at a crossroads. There’s only two ways we will go.”

David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on October 17, 2015.